Warm Water Syndrome

Stefan Wissenbach

How do you boil a frog?

Let’s leave for a moment the follow-up question of why you would want to boil a frog. The point is, if you drop a frog into boiling hot water, it will jump out. It doesn’t like it, so it runs away and moves on with its little froggy life. But, if you put that frog in a pot of cold water and slowly heat it, the water grows warm, the frog grows sleepy, and eventually the water boils and the frog dies.

I don’t recommend actually trying this, but it is a valuable metaphor.

I think a lot of people suffer from warm water syndrome, that sort of slow and sleepy period in which you adjust to circumstances and lifestyles that aren’t the best for you, until you quietly pass away. It’s very easy to get comfy and complacent, settling for mediocrity. It’s got nothing to do with age, though as some people age they tend to lose a bit of their drive; and it’s nothing to do with attaining your big goals. Maybe if you’ve reached the position you wanted, your life is balanced the way you want, and you’ve attained all the things you want to be, do and have, you can afford to enjoy the warm water. But I think in many cases, people find themselves settling into situations, lifestyles, and patterns simply because they’ve gotten used to them being that way.

I’m going through a period of significant change in my own professional life, and when a transition like that happens, you suddenly get a fresh perspective on what you’ve been doing. You might end up realizing, as I did, that certain things are the way they are just because you’ve been suffering from warm water syndrome. You’ve not really taken time out to step back and ask: Should things be this way? Could they be better? What can I do about that? When you are forced to change, re-evaluation is a natural consequence. For instance, say you are laid off from your job and you realize you never really liked living in your city (it was just convenient to work), and you’ve always wanted to go into making furniture. Now that you’ve been thrust into boiling water, you realize you have the chance to make those positive changes. But what if that pink slip never lands on your desk? Would you question where you live, or what you do? Or would you relax into the lull of warm water until the end?

Transferable Insight: Warm water syndrome can happen to anyone, and it’s particularly insidious because we don’t realize it’s happening until it’s too late. The only cure is to remind yourself to look at your life and your goals objectively from time to time and re-evaluate them.

Question: Take a mental step back from your life and ask yourself: Should things be this way? Could they be better? What can you do to improve the situation?

Check to see whether your current choices are aligned with your big goals – and you might find that you even need to change your goals to fit who you are and what you really want. These questions may be uncomfortable to ask, but it’s better to suffer discomfort now than to ease into a life of unfulfilled potential.

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